We'll Get Through This
We have to. But first: the pits.
Hey Hello Hey, how you doing?
Well, I guess I’m doing all right. I am doing well. I am not ill. I have work to do, friends to call, and family to love.
In the grand scheme of things, however, I am scared. And I am very sad. And I have been frozen solid by anger and confusion. I’m a mess! Perhaps I’ve been frozen solid by the question: what the heck do I do with all this?
This is the fifth time I attempt to write this newsletter. My emotions didn’t seem relevant or helpful—but they took over every draft. I was also worried about spreading angry or upsetting information, which is currently blazing bright across the Internet. So I’ve thought about it and I’ve read about it and I’ve begun rereading my favourite book again (The Dispossessed) and I’ve been looking for this Hunter S. Thompson quote where he says something like, in times of great unrest we should take up a hobby or read fiction again, and I’ve been walking, shovelling, working, eating voluminously and sleeping little.
Anyway, here it goes.
Last Saturday, I spent the evening with five friends at a rented house. We all did rapid tests and had good times. We had buckets of fried chicken and video games, and we bet on any action we could think of. There were many laughs. But there were also several moments when, as we sat together around a dining room table, arms crossed, brows furrowed or eyes unfocused, we talked about feelings of despair, of rage, of fear. I talked about the importance of getting together, and may have ranted a bit about “reaching out to your circle”. Mostly, we were together for a time, which was important.
So: Why am I scared? Because extremism seems to be growing in Canada. As I told my students on March 8, white supremacy has long been downplayed in Canada. “It’s part of our heritage,” I said. “Scared white people can be scary,” I told a co-worker living in Centretown.
At the very least the growing movement is populist, as defined by this journalist here: an “ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite".” Not a great way to go about life.
Why am I sad? Because these populists, and in some cases fascists, are at the metaphorical gates. And some people want to let them (metaphorically) in... Maybe they didn’t hear about the harassment, the intimidation, the name-calling, the pushing, the spitting, or the human shit being thrown at people in the downtown streets of Ottawa for three weeks… Or maybe they did hear about it and they don’t believe it…? There was (and is) a propaganda push to make the extremists look less extreme. But! There were (and are) many people involved in the Freedom Convoy 2022 who really do not believe in hateful rhetoric or racist ideas. Some of them believe they are on the side of love and peace. What they believe is a fact.
Why am I feeling anger? Why the confusion? These should be pretty clear. But in case they’re not:
There are Ottawans and Canadians all over who are willing to overlook racist organizers and many, many reports of physical, verbal and psychological harassment from those protesters.
There are Ottawans and Canadians who feel like their fears are now justified when the Emergencies Act was triggered and the police came marching in like stormtroopers.
“Are there good, frustrated people just trying to be heard in the crowd? Yes. Are there bad people in the crowd, including some who've waved hate symbols and harassed or attacked others? Yes. Are there people taking careful care of the roads, sweeping up trash and shovelling ice and snow off the sidewalk? Yes. Are there hard men milling about, keeping a wary eye on anyone who seems out of place? Yes. Is it a place where some people are having good-natured fun? Yes. Is it a place some other people would rightly be afraid to go? Yes. And so on.” —Matt Gurney, who co-founded and writes for The Line, a reliable conservative Substack newsletter. (Here’s that piece on Feb. 10, one in a series of his reports from the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa.)
My best of times thoughts: “This is a big, awful moment we’re in.”
Worst of times rumination: “We’re at war.”
During the early days of the occupation, my mind alternated between two bad ideas: “I need to go slash truck tires and rip down hateful signs”. And “I need to save these people, to explain to them that they are ruining their lives.”
My friend’s building was almost burned down by would-be arsonists.
I repeat: people started a fire in my friend’s lobby.
“Not to diminish anyone's fear or alarm, but it appears white people in Ottawa are starting to understand what it's like to be constantly let down by police and the justice system” —Waubgeshig Rice, Feb. 13
Overwhelming amount of conspiracy theories about vaccines, Bill Gates, masks, George Soros, and lockdowns and QAnon, all summarized by Balcony Man as, “goddam nonsense.”
“Nous sommes dans l’ombre de la violence,” said my aunt, who works to rehabilitate violent men. In the shadow of violence, we are encouraged to respond in kind. Example: when a man I’ll refer to only as the rat king actively calls for violent attacks on counter-protesters, all I can think is: “It might be time to bring back the tradition of tarring and feathering for this motherfucker.”
The frustration among and alongside the craziness is real. I can’t pretend to always understand it, but there are truly concerned people who wish to protest the way things are going. Maybe it’s because of their lot in life: their socioeconomic situation or the rising cost of frigging everything. Maybe they feel isolated—of course, we all do right now. But what if they’ve felt it for a long time before the pandemic? Maybe their work prospects are limited, or inexistent. Maybe they have low critical thinking skills and have never been taught to do real research. What if they have unsupportive parents, or larger family problems, or abusive partners? What if they are psychologically unsure of themselves, or have unresolved trauma from childhood? What if they have substance use problems, had failures that still haunt them, and regularly feel estranged, humiliated, or unloved?
Don’t we all identify with at least one or two of those feelings? What if you felt all of those things all at once? (Here’s a small guide to help understand why regular folks can get captured by extremist thinking. Actually, this whole organization is a great resource that I’ll be reading closely.)
I’m also confused and angry because critical thinking is still present among many people who were for the convoyers. They chose not to see the problems that made me immediately think, “I’m anti-convoy.” They identified with the feelings of unfairness, of bad policies, of pushing back against the man. Are we just going to write these people off?
No, I don’t think we can. In fact, we really can’t. We have to talk about these things and disagree in some places.
Where we can hopefully all agree is that violence, psychological or otherwise, should have no place in our social movements.
“This is why I’ve been in just a shitty mood for the last couple weeks,” said Macleans writer Paul Wells, on Feb. 10, in the Thursday episode of Canadaland Shortcuts. “I think this whole moment is an acceleration in our inability as a society to simply talk to one another.” (This summarizes exactly my feelings of sadness and of fear.)
Still with me? Don’t forget to stretch this morning. It’s good for you!
This above was my view on the January morning that the Ottawa protest began in earnest. I was in the Rocky Mountains, but mentally I was trapped in the echo chambers of Twitter that were ringing very loud alarms. If you’ve followed any white nationalist reporting from Mack Lamoureux and Ben Makuch (both from Vice), Justin Ling (many places), or Nora Loreto (Passage), you’d have known exactly what was coming to Ottawa. This shit is not new.
I think it’s important to note—although this complicates things, again—that it’s likely that people who drew swastikas on Canadian flags or SS symbols on anti-vax slogans were accusing our governments of being the Nazis. These flag wavers are not Nazis. Their opinion is that others are the fascists. We also can’t skip over the people who wore yellow badges either, who were comparing their situation to that of the Jews during the Holocaust.
The complicating part of these details is this: those people aren’t pro-Nazi but they are still spreading hateful language. In my opinion, we can’t just throw them all into the same basket with actual right-wing scumbags who are afraid that Jews control the world. (Newsflash: they don’t.) The complication ends here, though.
I think Canadians who compare themselves to Jews under the heel of Nazis during the Second World War are ignorant and their signs and flags are just insults to people who have faced actual oppression.
Let’s step back from all that emotion, and my opinion.
Because it’s important to say this: calling someone a scumbag makes me feel a bit better. I feel justified by their actions to ID them as hateful idiots. But it also makes me feel worse, because this effectively labels them as my enemy. And if they are my enemy, then I am essentially at war.
Again with the sadness. I agree with them on this: life is not fair.
So, let’s talk about what we can actually do. What my friends around the AirBnB dining table and I talked about that gave us some hope. What my aunt and I talked about that crystallized hard, awful truths that she takes in stride. What the world is lacking right now as, again, the world burns bright with bullshit on our phone and computer screens.
It’s okay to feel sad and it’s okay to feel scared. But: “Anger is not action and misery is not solidarity.”
Audre Lorde, who fought ignorance and psychological violence her whole life, said, “Your silences will not protect you.”
Things are going to get worse if we continue to fortify our opinions into ideological camps. These are the echo chambers that our political leaders and news outlets and social media feeds have encouraged us to build. Where does this path lead? I think it leads to where the “United” States of America are now.
Like I said above: I am revisiting my favourite book, The Dispossessed, as an audiobook from the Toronto Public Library. It’s the third library I borrow it from. It’s the fifth time I listen to the audiobook. It’s the sixth time I take in the story—I read it on paper once.
It makes me feel good. It has in it, in my opinion, everything you need to know about life. I love Shevek, its main character. I love the themes of duality, of community, of society, of anarchism, of capitalism, of good old human behaviour, and of the hope that we can still communicate.
It has a lot to say about our current situation, too… But I listen to it for the emotions, the ambiguity, and the hope that is inherent—a fixture—of human life.
If you don’t have time for a 13-hour audiobook but want to know what Ursula K. Le Guin is all about, I suggest you read her most famous short story: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”.
Le Guin warned us—writers, bleeding-heart types, the world at large—in 2014 in a little speech she made. Without raising her voice, she eviscerated Amazon and profit-hungry publishers as she accepted her National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. And she also said:
“I think hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now.”
C’est noté, ma chère. Merci.
British war correspondent Martha Gellhorn wrote, “If a writer has any guts he should write all the time, and the lousier the world the harder a writer should work.”
Well, dammit Martha—way to make the rest of us look bad!
Writer George Saunders told his fiction writing students in March 2020, in a much kinder way: “…this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds… We are… the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterwards.”
Darn it, George—it ain’t easy.
Here’s what I’m telling myself: Even when the world wearies (or exhausts, or terrifies) and when society ceases to satisfy there are ways to feel better for a time. There are ways to face that sadness, that anger, that confusion and pain, and to get back out into the scary world, to get back into that sick society. It’s ours. I will not be kept from it.
Making art: very important. Sticking together: essential! And talking to others with whom you disagree: necessary. We’re fucked if we don’t do this.
Note to self, and to anyone who needs to hear this: we are not supposed to save these people. We should listen where and when we can. Phone calls. Talking on the street corner. In the grocery store lineup. And we should walk away when we think it’s too much.
Yes, some people are too far gone down conspiracy rabbit holes. Look to the professionals and support those who know who to do this work, but don’t lose your mind trying to listen to another lost mind.
No, not all people are too far gone! Hell’s bells, we are not in two camps—we are an overwhelming mess and complexity of emotions, opinions, and biases. We can’t isolate people who feel isolated. We can’t cancel them. We have to talk to our friends and family who are flirting with these real frustrations and let them know:
Yo, things are messed up right now. It’s a bad time.
Vaccines are good things. Masks are a pain! Governments are floundering. Our leaders kind of suck! You are not wrong. We need to do much, more better for people with mental health issues. A pandemic is a terrifying time and it pulls us apart. We need to have a much more robust social safety net. Hot take: it’s not a crime to be poor. But everyone acts and thinks like it is.
Also this line I hear people saying about how “the weak die, the strongest survive” is a fucked up way of thinking. Follow that line of thought—which is a fallacy, or an error in reasoning—and you’ll end up at Eugenics. Hmm that sounds familiar, who preached Eugenics again? Oh yeah: actual Nazis from the 1930s!
This fallacy is called “social Darwinism” where a biological theory is used as an analogy (not a scientific comparison but a linguistic one) to describe women, men, boys and girls dying because “it’s natural”. Maybe when you are an able-bodied, relatively young person who hasn’t lost a close loved one recently, and maybe you don’t know anyone who is undergoing chemotherapy, or who has diabetes or asthma or a bum ticker (heart issue), or who has limited physical mobility or sensory impairment, then it might be easy for you to think: yeah weak people die, so what?
Newsflash: all people die. Trying to stop people from dying should be the default way of thinking. Especially during a pandemic.
We, as a society, are judged by how we protect our most vulnerable. If that sounds idealistic and hard to attain that it’s because it is—it is! But that’s not a good enough reason not to try.
I’d say most of my friends believe, to some degree, in the legitimacy of social Darwinism. I think it’s my job to explain to them why they’re wrong.
So, here we go: I’m trying. This is the messy work.
“Loving friendships provide us with a space to experience the joy of community in a relationship where we learn to process all our issues, to cope with differences and conflict while staying connected.” —bell hooks
I’m also telling myself: “Joe, don’t get stuck in an echo chamber.” Even if the ideas in the other chamber sound insane—many do—remember that these are just symptoms of three massive movements in the world that we have no control over. We are being tossed around like toys by these circumstances:
Many people don’t trust institutions anymore (political, journalistic, scientific) and some have very good reasons to be untrusting. The bad reasons—like lies and propaganda—should be fought off. But the systems in place are not above criticism. We all deserve better institutions.
The Internet has changed our brains. It’s like trying to drink from a firehose. It has also upended or changed all industries, co-opted social movements, and disrupted our social norms, our communication practices, and our attention spans. There are definitely good things about the Internet. But I’d argue the bad outweighs the good.
Finally, society isn’t working as well as it could be. That’s an understatement. If a society is judged by how it protects its most vulnerable people, then we are failing. You can’t buy me love, although I keep trying and trying and trying.
Anyway, I am still feeling weird. And I’m unsure about this newsletter. But pushing the button to send it off is my tiny way of saying: all is not lost.
We can do this. We have to.